The emergence of Aaron Judge was one of the best Yankee stories in 2017 and made it possible for the Yankees to come within one win of playing in the World Series. In the next month or so, Judge will win the Rookie of the Year Award easily and will likely come in first or second in the MVP balloting. Judge is not only a formidable power hitter, but also a strong defender who was nominated for a Golden Glove for his work in right field this year. As we all saw in the ALCS, Judge is also a smart and heads up ballplayer. Judge has become one of the best players in all of baseball despite striking out in more than 30% of his plate appearances and being prone to agonizing and prolonged slumps.
Despite the strikeouts and the slumps, Judge set a record for home runs by a rookie with 52. His 8.1 WAR was the fourth highest ever by rookie non-pitcher. Only Mike Trout (10.8 WAR in 2012), Shoeless Joe Jackson (9.2 in 1911), and Dick Allen (8.8 in 1964) had better rookie years according to WAR. That is extremely good company. Trout seems pretty clearly destined for Cooperstown, Jackson would have been one of the all-time greats of the dead ball era if not for his alleged involvement in throwing the 1919 World Series. Allen was a great hitter for many years. However, there is another piece of Aaron Judge’s season that is easy to overlook. Judge was 25 years old during his great rookie year. Allen, Jackson and Trout were 22, 23 and 20.
Many Yankee fans may not be aware or fully understand the significance of Judge being 25 in his rookie season. One way to think about Judge’s age is that he is only eight months younger than Mike Trout and is six months older than Bryce Harper, two of the premier sluggers in the game today. Similarly, Judge’s 8.1 WAR in 2017 ranked him 20th all-time among 25 year olds and tied for 73rd in seasons for players 25 and younger. Those rankings are impressive, but indicate that while he had a good 2017, he did not have a historically good one.
All this data suggests two things about Judge. First, it is unlikely that his 2017 season is a fluke. While it is unlikely that he will hit 50 or more home runs, have an OPS of over 1.000 or accumulate 8.1 WAR every year, he is likely to be a very good player for some time. Second, the longer term projections for Judge are not quite as good. Getting a late start will put a cap on just how good Judge’s overall career will be. For example, only seven non-pitchers who were rookies at age 25 or older made it to the Hall of Fame. Two of those players are Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. Several of the others, like Earle Combs, Kiki Cuyler, and Earl Averill are among the weaker Hall of Famers.
The best player who was a rookie at age 25 or older was Bob Johnson, a slugging AL outfielder in the 1930s and 1940s who had an OPS+ of 139, 57.2 WAR, and seven All Star appearances over the course of his 13 year career. In the postwar era, that honor belongs to the Penguin, Ron Cey. Cey was a good, but not great, defender at third base for the Los Angeles Dodgers who posted a 121 OPS+ and 53.5 WAR while playing in six consecutive All Star Games in the 1970s. He may be most famous for being part of the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield that stayed together for what felt like my entire childhood. Johnson and Cey were both excellent players, but their own fame, bank accounts and careers would have benefitted from an earlier start.
The Yankees' decision to bring Judge along slowly was due to number of factors. He was never the dominating power hitter in the minors that he was this year with the Yankees and he struck out in more than 25% of his minor league plate appearances. The Yankees were rightfully concerned about rushing Judge and were rewarded by a better 2017 season from the big right fielder than anybody expected. The real reward for the Yankees is that Judge will not be a free agent until after the 2022 season when his very best years will almost certainly be behind him. By delaying Judge’s rise to the majors, for whatever reason, the Yankees guaranteed this, saving themselves money and ensuring that Judge’s most productive seasons will be in pinstripes.
The Yankees handling of Judge is hard to question because he had not demonstrated in the minors that he was quite ready, but truly great players are ready by their early 20s. The reality that Judge was probably not tells us something about the ceiling for how good his career will be. This also speaks to how the current collective bargaining rules about free agency and player development create different incentives for teams and players. Even if Judge had been ready in early 2016, the Yankees would have been able to ensure control of him during one more of his best years, when they would be contending by leaving in the minors rather than bringing him to the big leagues in a year when they did not expect to contend.
For a team like the Yankees with a lot of top prospects, this problem will not go away easily. Delaying the arrival of Gleyber Torres, who will turn 21 soon, 23-year-old Chance Adams or 21-year-old Justus Sheffield may save the Yankees some money and guarantee more team control in the long run, but could be doing these players a disservice in the bigger picture. Moreover, now that they Yankees have moved back into contention, these need to be decisions driven only by baseball considerations.
Photo: cc/Keith Allison